What is a Game?

“A game is a bounded, specific way of problem solving. Play is more cosmic and open-ended. Gods play, but man unfortunately is a gaming individual. A game has a predictable resolution, play may not. It allows for emergence, novelty, surprise.” – Shiv Visvanathan

Gamification is a subset of games, we play games from a very early age, and we play games because games can be fun, challenging, offer a break from reality, offer social interaction and a chance to complete with others.  Games can be simple and can take minutes to play, for example a game like tic-tac-toe, simple to play, easy to master and typically once mastered we get bored and move onto something else.  There are games that challenge us, for instance Chess, basic moves can be learned within a few hours, but to master the game could take years and even decades.  For the most part we play games because they are fun to play they occupy us a good game can make hours feel like minutes.

According to Gray, Brown and Macanufo (2010) who state that games can be broken down into some very basic components that separated it from other types of play.  As youth we went out and played in the yard, we ran around, we kicked the ball and interacted with our friends.  There may be little structure to our play; in fact play is very much freestyle, we run, we jump and may even kick a ball around.  As soon as we add structure we start playing a game such as boundaries, rules, objects, couple that with a goal and we have moved from play to gaming.

One of the components of gaming according to Gray, Brown and Macanufo (2010) is the notion of game space and that games take place within that space.  Zimmerman (n.d.) talks about the idea of a ”magic circle”, which is a concept first introduced by Huizinga in which “The magic circle represents the idea that games take place within limits of time and space and are self-contained systems of meaning.”  One of the fundamental notions of playing a game is that we enter game play freely; we cannot be made to play a game.  As well the game space is safe, we can engage in activities that normally we would never think of doing in our normal lives.  By entering the game space we also agree to abide by the rules of that game space and that we can leave freely as we entered. Game space consists of Boundaries, Rules, Artifacts and Goals.


Games have boundaries, when we enter into the game space there defined boundaries,  think about games we have played whether it’s a sports game like football, or a game like Candy Land, or one of the many MMOs (Massive Multi-player Online Games)  they take place outside our real world.  The reality of the game is created within the game space, whether you are a tycoon vying to bankrupt all the other players or a plumber saving a princess you play in a very well defined game space.  Some games have very linear boundaries, you enter the game, you follow the path that is provided, and eventually reach the end.  Within the boundaries of the game there can be one or multiple paths that can lead you through the game space.  This often gives the player a perceived notion of freedom of choice within the game space.

When we enter a game space we have to know how to interact with whatever may be in our environment.  These are what Gray, Brown and Macanufo (2010) term as rules of interaction.  These are an agreed upon set of rules that all players will follow within the game space.  These rules help define the things we can do within that game space.  How we move, what types of encounters we will have, the rewards we may give or receive, even how we may interact with other players who are also within that same games space.  Rules of games can be known or can be discovered within the game itself.

Many games have artifacts within the game space. These artifacts typically only have value within the game space itself.  For example Monopoly money is only good within the context of playing Monopoly it has no real value outside that game space itself.  Artifacts can be points in a game; they can be talismans to mark where you are in in the game.  MMO games have many artifacts that you can use within the game; money, weapons, followers and armor.  Some artifacts can even be traded or given away within that game space.

Lastly games have clearly defined goals within that game space, without a goal, how do you know when you have achieved the next level or when the game ends.  Some games like tic-tac-toe are quick, get three in a row and you win.  Other games are more opened ended, offering quests which are smaller goals that lead to bigger goals.  For instance the notion of questing in MMOs often lead to leveling (progression) within the game, as you level your avatar you unlock content which allows you to master new skills, new artifacts, new places to explore eventually leading you to what is called the end game.


Gray, D., Brown, S. and Macanufo J. (2010). ‘Game Storming: A playbook for innovators, rule breakers and change makers.’ First Edition. ed. California: O’Reilly.


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